Doug Moe will host the Malones to discuss their latest book Traveler: The Musical Odyssey of Tim O’Brien. Below is copies from Moe’s recent newsletter announcing the event. Register for the livestream here.
Celebrating Bill and Bobbie Malone as They Celebrate Tim O’Brien, a Musician’s Musician, in a New Book
by Doug Moe
I will jump at any chance to chat with my favorite Madison ex-patriates, Bill and Bobbie Malone, who left for their native Texas in June 2020 after nearly 25 years in Madison. “More family, less winter,” Bobbie told me at the time, while Bill opined, “The years in Madison have been the best years of my life, and I’ve lived over 85 years.”
Bill and Bobbie will return – virtually – January 25 at 7 pm for a Mystery to Me event celebrating the new book they’ve coauthored, Traveler: The Musical Odyssey of Tim O’Brien. I will be interviewing the Malones that evening and caught up with them by phone on the second to last day of 2022 so they could help me preview their January 25 Madison appearance.
We will be discussing Traveler – more on Tim O’Brien momentarily – but any conversation with the Malones is by definition wide-ranging, given their array of talents, interests and life experiences. Bill is considered the world’s leading authority on the history of country music, a recognition that led Ken Burns to tap him for a key role in “Country Music,” Burns’ 2019 PBS documentary.
Bill’s seminal book, Country Music USA, has been in print in various editions for more than 50 years and will soon be available in Chinese. “I signed the contract,” he said of the Chinese translation, “but I’m still waiting to see it.”
It was Bobbie landing a job at the Wisconsin Historical Society that brought the couple to Madison in the 1990s. She helped create books on Wisconsin history for young readers and in 2016, after retiring from the society, published Lois Lenski: Storyteller, a biography of the beloved children’s author.
Bill and Bobbie coauthored the 2020 book, Nashville’s Songwriting Sweethearts: The Boudleaux and Felice Bryant Story, a biography of the duo who wrote numerous hit songs for the Everly Brothers and other artists. When it was published, Bill turned to his wife and said, “What’s next?” Bobbie, who had suggested a breather might be in order, was on board if they could write about someone they both really admired.
In kicking it around, one name kept bobbing to the top. Decades earlier – on July 4, 1986, to be precise – while attending the Nacogdoches Bluegrass Festival, the Malones were captivated by a sizzling band called Hot Rize and its lead singer, Tim O’Brien. “As the years went by,” Bill and Bobbie write in the introduction to Traveler, their new O’Brien biography, “and as he embarked on his own solo career, we followed him, marveling at his singing prowess, at his skill in writing songs, and at his facility with a wide variety of instruments – mandolin, fiddle, guitar, banjo, and bouzouki.
“We also began to notice how widely esteemed he was among other musicians. He frequently showed up as a contributor to other people’s recordings, providing duet harmonies, playing an instrument, or working as a producer.”
Bill and Bobbie got to know O’Brien and in May 2018 when Hot Rize played the Stoughton Opera House the Malones saw the show from box seats in Western attire provided by the band. (Hot Rize famously employs a “back-up band” called Red Knuckles that is in fact the Hot Rize guys wearing cowboy outfits and playing Western Swing.)
Still, when the Malones reached out to O’Brien about doing a biography, the musician was somewhat flummoxed. “We were met by silence,” Bill and Bobbie note in the new book, “then a surprised chuckle to ask if we were joking.”
O’Brien’s surprise reflects an important aspect of the Malones’ work that is evident when you consider it as a whole. They’ve tended toward subjects whose talent exceeds their public acclaim. Everybody knows the hit Everly Brothers song “Bye Bye Love,” but how many knew the Bryants wrote it? When Bill wrote a biography of a member of the musical Seeger family, he chose not the well-known Pete, but rather Pete’s brother, Mike Seeger, an important folk producer and founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers.
Once O’Brien realized the Malones were serious, he was helpful in providing names and contact information of family, friends, and musical colleagues. Bill and Bobbie have honored that cooperation by producing a book that David Cantwell, author of The Running Kind: Listening to Merle Haggard, says reminds “us that Tim O’Brien, the bluegrass plus country plus Americana plus Irish folk singer-songwriter, is one of America’s greatest-ever musicians. But that was the easy part. Traveler’s real gift comes in the great adventure the Malones discover – solo flights and collaborations, hits and misses, traditions upheld and reinvented, families inherited or chosen – in something so humble as the day in and day out of being a working musician. What a ride, what a life!”
Bill and Bobbie let me know they’ve already embarked on another book project. We’ll reveal that – no doubt there will be other surprises as well – on January 25, while we trace the musical odyssey of Tim O’Brien.